CLEVELAND — LeBron James insisted it was nothing personal. The final score said otherwise.
James scored a season-high 38 points — 24 in a third-quarter clinic — to lead the Miami Heat in a 118-90 blowout win over the Cavaliers, taming a hostile Cleveland crowd even before halftime Thursday night.
“I have the utmost respect for this franchise, the utmost respect for these fans,” James said afterward. But he spent part of the second half taunting Cleveland’s bench.
The game that mattered most to the franchise turned into its worst loss of the season so far.
“I thought he played great,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said. “Simple as that.”
It was James’ first game back in the city where he played for seven years and won back-to-back MVP awards, but failed to win an NBA championship.
Before the game, fans peppered him with obscene chants and booed every time he appeared on the giant TV screens beneath the scoreboard. They held up signs that read, “Quitness” and “Play Like It’s Game Five” — a reference to his playoff failure against Boston last season, when many fans — and owner Dan Gilbert — felt James had quit. There were five guys wearing a single letter each on their white T-shirts that spelled out: LeBum.
Dwyane Wade added 22 points, James Jones 18 and Chris Bosh 15 for the Heat, which played its most complete game of the season to improve to 12-8.
“This is the first time I have seen this connection all year long,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, who’s come under criticism for the team’s slow start.
Daniel Gibson scored 21 for the Cavaliers, who have lost six of eight and now play seven of their next eight on the road.
James had 10 more points than Cleveland’s starting lineup, including half during a 16-0 first-quarter run that immediately knocked the Cavaliers back. Ahead by 19 at the half, the Heat poured it, shooting 73 percent from the field in the third quarter. James went 10 of 12 during that stretch and Wade hit all four of his attempts.
James sat on the bench for all of the fourth quarter, with dozens of security guards and police lining the team’s entrance to the court and guarding against objects thrown at him. After the clock ran out, he left without incident.
Throughout the game, James frequently bantered with his former coaches and fans at courtside.
“I turned one time and he was down there, talking,” Scott said. “That’s what he does most games. He talks to most guys on the bench.”
The early spurt left a crowd of 20,562 with nothing left to cheer except James’ occasional missed shot. He didn’t miss many, finishing 15 of 25 from the field, to go with eight assists and five rebounds.
He never apologized to Cleveland or its fans, but said he appreciated the way he was treated as a young pro.
“So many things went through my mind,” James said. “I have nothing bad to say about these fans at all. We grew from the year before I got here, a 17-win season to the last two years I was here, we had the best team in the league in the regular season. I understand their frustration. I was frustrated also because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to. I wish this organization and these fans, who are great, the best.”
Cleveland native and game show host Drew Carey, Browns icon Bernie Kosar, Indians slugger Travis Hafner and most of the current Browns were cheered wildly when they made their way to courtside seats. Cincinnati Bengals receiver Terrell Owens even was in attendance.
By far, the loudest cheers were saved for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who had ripped James after his decision, saying he quit on the Cavaliers during their season-ending playoff series with the Celtics last spring.
It didn’t take long for the Heat to find their sense of urgency.
“It felt like a playoff game for us,” Spoelstra said.